Though federal immigration officials said it would curtail arrests of non-criminals amid the coronavirus pandemic, new non-criminal migrants are still being picked up and taken to South Florida detention centers without being tested for COVID-19, three federal sources confirmed to the Miami Herald.
The new arrests come at a time when three detention centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Glades Counties have had to quarantine sections of their facilities after detainees developed flu-like symptoms and were sent to the hospital.
According to three federal ICE prosecutors with knowledge of the three South Florida detention facilities — the Krome Processing Center in South Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida — people with non-criminal offenses are continuing to get picked up by immigration agents.
The prosecutors asked to not be named because they fear retribution.
“For example, visa overstays are still being arrested, as well as undocumented people who happen to be there when agents make a criminal arrest,” one ICE source said, noting that at least one preliminary hearing for a visa overstay was completed Wednesday at one of the three facilities.
Said another ICE prosecutor: “Not only does this contradict what ICE said it would not do, but it is more importantly putting all the detainees and workers at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 inside a place where everybody is trapped and can’t go anywhere.”
On March 18, ICE said it would temporarily be using more “discretion” when it comes to the arrests of non-criminal undocumented immigrants in an attempt to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. In a statement, the agency said it would instead focus on criminal investigations.
While ICE has told the Miami Herald that there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus inside Florida detention centers as of Wednesday, detainees and family members of those inside say conditions are worsening by the day.
“They have quarantined around 46 of us after somebody got sick,” one Krome detainee told the Herald. “We are called out one by one to get our meals. We are scared. They don’t tell us anything.”
A detainee at the Glades detention center told the Herald of similar circumstances: “Several people were taken to the hospital after falling very ill. Large sections of the jail have been quarantined, but nobody has been tested.”
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The possibilities of getting tested for coronavirus inside the detention centers are slim to none, federal sources say.
“There aren’t enough testing kits, so the only way someone will get tested is if they’re extremely old and basically dying,” one ICE prosecutor said.
The ICE public affairs office told the Miami Herald that the agency in general has conducted COVID-19 tests but wouldn’t say how many and if there are still any pending results.
“That isn’t something we have to provide,” said ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer, in an email. “We don’t have data on the number of tests, but we’re testing detainees and employees as appropriate per the CDC guidelines. And all persons arriving at an ICE facility are being screened.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing guidelines cited by ICE, people who qualify for COVID-19 examinations are those who are already hospitalized, people 65 and older and people with underlying health conditions who have symptoms.
Spicer would not explain what screenings entail, but workers inside the facility say it is cursory: “They are taking people’s temperatures when they are brought in,” one Krome security guard told the Herald. “That’s it. They aren’t taking into account that just because somebody isn’t showing symptoms doesn’t mean they aren’t carrying the virus.”
CDC research backs the guard’s claims.
According to the federal health agency, people who are asymptomatic can still be considered high risk. The federal health experts say there have been cases where people who have shown little to no symptoms have tested positive for COVID-19.
At least four people were taken to the hospital after developing flu-like symptoms, three federal sources inside Glades told the Herald.
ICE won’t disclose whether or not those specific individuals tested positive or negative for COVID-19. Meanwhile, some areas of the facility were placed on quarantine but no detainees who had contact with the people who developed the severe-enough symptoms have been tested for the coronavirus.
The same goes for the centers in Miami-Dade and Broward.
At Krome, one person was taken to the hospital last week after developing flu-like symptoms. That person ultimately tested positive for Influenza B. ICE would not disclose if the person was tested for the coronavirus. That person, along with people from the detainee’s housing area, was isolated to help prevent the spread of any illness, ICE said.
Two sources inside the detention center told the Herald that two additional detainees from Krome were taken to the hospital this week and that they tested negative for the flu; COVID-19 results are still pending. ICE would not comment on those cases either.
Meanwhile, inside the Broward detention center at least five people have been quarantined, sources say. The move was made after one detainee was transferred from a Puerto Rico detention center. Officials began to isolate other detainees after they determined that the incoming migrant was actually from Italy — one of the epicenters of the pandemic.
“My client has been having flu-like symptoms and they keep giving him cough syrup,” said Andrea Montavon-McKillipa, a South Florida immigration attorney. “He keeps telling me there are a lot of other people that are sick too but aren’t receiving care.”
Montavon-McKillipa, who also has another client at Krome, said there are two people inside her client’s pod who are sick but are not being isolated.
“My client says there are no masks, that they ran out of hand sanitizer,” she said.
But detainees aren’t the only ones getting sick. According to three federal asylum office workers — government employees that interview detainees inside detention centers for their asylum cases — at least one person who works for their asylum office tested positive for COVID-19. That person had visited Krome and Broward prior to being tested. Two other people, who were in contact with the infected individual, also reported to work and have since not been allowed to stay home by the federal immigration system.
Jessica Schneider, the director of the detention program at Americans for Immigrant Justice told the Herald that the organization, which provides legal advice to detainees about their basic rights, is “extremely concerned amid the reports of quarantining in the local South Florida ICE facilities,” calling it a “ticking time bomb.”
“It is not a question of if, but when, detained immigrants will become infected with COVID-19,” Schneider said. “If ICE does not take immediate steps to release individuals from its custody people could die.”
Schneider told the Herald that the organization has heard from its clients that ICE has been taking immigrants to the airport to deport them, only to bring them back because of logistical issues.
“This is very concerning as it means that these immigrants are being further exposed to the coronavirus in the airport and then being brought back into a facility where they could potentially introduce the virus and infect the rest of the detained population,” she said.
The quarantine reports coming out of the detention centers nationwide — specifically the first reported death of a coronavirus-positive inmate in New Jersey Tuesday — coupled with ICE’s tight grip on coronavirus-related information, has sparked national cries from immigration advocates.
Following the news, Amnesty International called on governors and state health officials nationwide to release immigration detainees “to prevent this exact scenario” in a letter.
“One of the most critical steps you can take to immediately reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to utilize your public health and licensing authority to instruct federal immigration detention facilities, county and local jails to substantially reduce their detainee occupancy capacity,” the letter reads. “Given the documented inadequacies of medical care and basic hygiene in immigration detention facilities, it is of vital importance for state public health authorities to address the state-wide risk posed by crowded immigration detention facilities.”
ICE did not respond to inquiries from the Miami Herald on whether or not this measure has been considered. The Herald hasn’t heard back from the Florida governor’s office either.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement has been trying to limit the infection from striking inside Miami-Dade’s jails, where inmates and officers spend hours upon hours in close proximity. South Florida officers have been told to be passive in arresting people, especially for misdemeanor and non-violent crimes.
On Monday, the total jail population was at 3,548, down from about 4,000 a few weeks ago.
The close quarters had been a concern for the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, which had been trying to get out as many of his office’s clients as possible.
“Prisons and jails nationwide are releasing inmates early under the direction of medical experts who have sounded the alarm bells that the spread of COVID-19 in jail-like conditions could be catastrophic,” Schneider said. “ICE has the discretion to release immigrants in its custody so why would they ignore the advice of medical professionals and continue to detain immigrants knowing that lives are at stake?”
This story was originally published March 26, 2020 6:00 AM.